Sample from the Novel:
The Cloth That Binds Her
By Jeff (Jaffer) Carnett
Ayse Altay, a 22 year old Turkic Muslim woman struggles to find the balance of tradition and modern China. She is unmarried and pregnant. Her community shuns her and her lover is bend on destroying her people. The saga that unfolds changes her life and the whole Nation.
My father can be a distant, harsh man, but he can be kind at times. I remember when I was a child, he took me on a day trip to the far west of our country, which we call East Turkistan. The Chinese call it Xinjiang. As a child, I loved being with Father. I miss holding his calloused hand even now, as a grown woman.
I know that he had not wanted to take me that day. Usually, I would have stayed with Auntie Elif, but it was harvest time and she needed to spend her time and energy harvesting the melons and wheat. I wasn’t in school yet. Only five or six years old.
Elif fit me in a colorful dress made of wool from our own sheep. She had dyed the yarn with the colors of the green grassy plain and the blue sky. I loved to wear bright red and yellow Uyghur doppa hats, which stood on my little head like a cylinder. She never wore such a beautiful doppa herself, but for me she would buy the best from the hat maker in Kashgar. The clothing I wore that day made me feel so grown up.
After many hours of travel on horseback, Father and I arrived at a small village in a valley far from our region. This place was desert with dirt blowing through the air burning my face when the particles hit my cheeks. The people wore harsh, dirty clothing; their hair was blown wildly. I noticed there were no children, only men, some young, and some old. They looked at us cautiously. Many carried rifles. Some carried traditional crossbows. I wondered sorts of animals they would hunt in such a barren land.
We slowed at the center of the settlement. Dust blew across a dirt trail that separated two irregular rows of mud-brick structures. They all looked alike. Brown, gray, made with mud and animal dung. The roofs were sheets of corrugated metal, red from rust. We Uighurs have always been a poor people, but this place, these people, were very poor indeed. I felt awkward, coming into the town in my fancy clothing. I could feel Father’s muscles tense from where I was sitting on his lap.
“It’s scary here, Baba.”
I looked up at him from where I sat on his right thigh. I saw his throat contract as he swallowed hard. I saw his Adam’s apple raise and fall. I felt my throat with my fingers.
“When can we go home, Baba?”
“We just got here, jannum.” His voice was dry and hoarse. Even so, calling me “my life” made me suddenly feel safe.
“Mehmet!” An old man’s voice called from behind us. Father’s body jumped in the saddle. He stopped the horse with a quick tug on the reins. We turned and saw the old man standing at the entrance of one of the plain looking, single story buildings. The man, in his seventies, wore a long white shirt and baggie pants. I remember a red fez on his head. The wind blew, but he didn’t close the front of his brown outer robe. His feet wrapped in white canvas shoes. I could see his big toes through the worn cloth.
“Old Mehtin,” Father said. I noticed his face was relaxed, easing gently to a smile.
“Come, my friend,” the old man said. He looked at me sternly, and then winked.
“Baba, who is the grandpa?”
“Ayşe, hush. Just stay with me and be still.”
Suddenly, two young men suddenly ran toward us from either side of our horse. They wore long black robes and long, thick black beards with shaven heads. They scared me.
“I can take little sister,” one told my father.
The people in this village were as if carved from stone, expressionless and cold. Even if their words seemed kind, I felt they could be very cruel.
Father held me close as he took me off the horse. “Not needed.” He smiled, bowing slightly. “You fellows continue your training.”
The entire place smelled of the dust of the desert mixed with horse dung and straw. Father threw the rope around our horse’s neck, securing the other end to a post next to the watering trough. He nervously looked right and left then placed me on the ground. He helped me straighten my clothing. When he was done fiddling with my hat, I grabbed his hand again.
The building we entered was like the others, nondescript. The corners of the dirty brown bricks were rounded from years of harsh winds. The door was so short that Father had to tilt his head forward to get through. Despite the bland exterior, the inside of the structure was one of light and life. Once the tarp that hung in the doorway was pulled aside, I could see the ceiling was somehow higher than I expected. I turned my neck up and saw the ceiling painted with huge Arabic letters. The strokes were like scratches of gold and turquois on clean, white tiles. I didn’t know what the words meant, but I felt their power fill the room. The sidewalls were decorated with light blue tiles. The floor, covered with five large Persian rugs with geometrical patterns of red and yellow. As a child, I felt the rugs were going to swallow me up in their thick pile of colored patterns.
A long wooden table was in the middle of the room. Toward the back wall, I saw a door that led to a cooking area. I could smell mutton stew cooking. I felt hungry.
Father sat down next to the old man. He put me on a stool beside him. I remember the smell of coffee; the kind from Turkey. Only when father came back after his journeys did I remember smelling this coffee. Coffee was exotic in our village as we usually drank tea.
A young man appeared from the small room in the back of the building. He too was dressed in white from his cap to his simple, white cotton shoes. He placed a Turkish coffee pot, a jezve, on the table. The old man, Mehtin, quickly pushed it away from my reach. I looked at him; he put his hand on his heart and tipped his head to me. At first I only noticed the old wrinkled skin that encircled his dark eyes. Suddenly, I saw in them a sparkle and a glimmer of kindness. I liked him.
The coffee pot was shaped like a grown woman, with curves that were attractive and elegant. I could see where the copper was molded into shape by the small half-circles etched by the pounding of a hammer on the sparkling, reddish metal. It still seems strange to me that someone would work so hard on such a pot that could only hold two small cups of coffee.
The coffee steamed in the pot. The boy first scooped the foam out from the top of the jezve and placed one spoonful in each of the men’s cups. Then, the rich black coffee was poured, bringing the foam to the top of the tiny cups. The coffee was so aromatic, and the steam rose to the high beams of the ceiling like an offering to Allah.
“Oh, yes, of course, you can have some.” Father laughed. He signaled to the young man who soon brought a cup for me filled with foamy whipped milk. I knew that they were humoring me, but I still felt honored.
I sat up tall. “Kop rahmat,” I said with a smile to the young man.
“Tuzut Qilmang, little sister,” he replied, smiling as well.
Father looked at me, his blue eyes beaming. I made him proud that day.
“Old Mehtin,” Father started. “Your help is so important to my people. The coffee you bring from the land of our ancestors is welcome too.”
Old Mehtin combed his long bony fingers through his beard, nodding his head slowly and purposefully. “Tamam arkadash,” he said as he placed his left hand on my father’s back.
“We are friends, brothers. If Allah is willing, we will prosper,” Mehtin said with a very slight grin that was trying to be a smile but failed.
Father nodded. I saw his hand trembled slightly as he lifted the coffee cup to his lips. Then everything stopped when the call to prayer was shouted from outside. The men quickly drank their coffee and placed the cups on the table.
“You stay here, Ayşe. Baba needs to pray, you know.” He winked and smiled.
Old Mehtin placed his right hand on his heart and bowed to me.
While they went to pray, I continued to marvel at the words on the ceiling. I also sipped some of Father’s coffee. It was so bitter that I coughed.
I miss my father, even though he might disown me when he learns of my pregnancy. Now, expelled from university I sit in my yurt in our village far from the city. At mealtime I can’t distinguish the horses returning to the village from the cooking coming from the kitchen tent. Their hoofs sound like the clanking of pottery. Like all of the yurts in our settlement, the kitchen tent is a pale tan color on the outside. But the inside is magical, with the walls adorned with cloth banners of vibrant red squares surrounding spirals of yellow, blue and of course, green − the color of our faith, Islam. Large woven carpets of deep rose-red cover every spot of the soil floor. Always there are images of roses everywhere. It is said our Prophet, Blessings be upon Him, smelled as fragrant as a rose.
The food, spices, grains and copious meats are set out neatly on the carpet in the kitchen tent. Mutton, yack, goat in all forms are carefully prepared and laid out for the hard-working tribesmen and women to admire and consume. The women cook over the steaming pots and cut the meats until their faces are sweaty and their knuckles are raw. All along they gossip while the men round up the sheep on the way back from battle. The teenagers tend the sheep while the older men fight in rebellion against the Chinese occupiers of our land since 1949. Now, we hope our efforts will reap benefits and the Chinese will loosen their grip on our country. The Chinese call us terrorists. Father says we are freedom fighters.
The men unsaddle the horses and stand at the doorway, nostrils flaring wide to breathe in the air our people have enjoyed for thousands of years. The women make final arrangements of putting out the plates and pouring the tea. The biggest and loudest woman of our village takes pride in her role as she calls the men, who rush to wash their hands of gunpowder stains and horse dander. They gather around the fire to exchange stories of the day’s combat and struggle. They are all my kin, so they have not forgotten about me but certainly do not think of me. I sit alone in a much smaller tent, colorless save for a collection of worn rectangular prayer rugs that give me just enough space to sit and sleep.
“You hungry, Ayşe?” Auntie Elif says.
“Yes, you know me. I’m always able to eat.”
“I will bring some yogurt and bread, then.” She slowly opens the door flaps of my tent. I hear her steps getting farther from my yurt and stomping into the kitchen tent nearby. I strain to hear the comments of the other women when she arrives. I want to know what will they say about my unborn baby and me. Actually, I have heard their comments all before.
“Ayşe can pray all she wants but she is not married to this, this, man – the father of her child,” the oldest lady says.
“She brings shame to our people,” another says. “Imagine a bastard child in our pious clan.”
“You will not accept the father, so what can I do?” I say, but they can’t hear me. I didn’t plan to get pregnant this way. I never imagined having sex before marriage with anyone − it is against our religion and our traditions. I never imagined having a baby this way but especially not with a Chinese Communist Party member. They are enemies of my people. But it happened. I thought long and hard but I will keep my baby. I will reunite with the father of my child, somehow. I know we can be a family. We can be happy.
Auntie Elif pushes aside the thick leather flap that hangs over the entrance to my tent. I have laid out a large cotton sheet to cover the exposed dirt floor between the tattered prayer rugs. I hope for enough food to settle my burning stomach. She places out a covered ceramic bowl of yogurt on the floor.
“The Chinese at university used to tell me we are ‘barbarians’. They said we are ‘useless’ nomads while they, on the other hand, are modern and advanced with their tall sky scrapers.” The smell of food makes me recall how I missed home cooking when I was as student.
“Those glass monstrosities! Our people might live in the open, exposed to the wrath of nature, but we also are blessed with its beauty,” Elif says.
I open the lid to the yogurt bowl. “The yogurt is especially good today, Auntie.” I take a big spoonful and shove it into my mouth. The corners of my mouth crack from the dry air.
“If it wasn’t for your father, you would be exiled from here.”
Elif looks startled. “Yes, dead.” She takes something from her bulky, oversized patchwork coat. It is bread wrapped in a white cotton cloth.
“Oh, you sneaked this to me.” I smile and I wipe the extra yogurt that is on my chin.
“Yes, bread is a bit sparse so the warriors get first share. Usually a woman with child gets bread, but in your case, you know.” She rolls her eyes.
I smile and Elif tries to keep her laughter under her breath. “Quiet, or those crusty old ladies will know we are laughing at them.” Her voice is cheerful but her look is strict “Then, we both starve.”
“I miss my times in the conservatory.” I sigh. “I love my baby but I do wish I could have finished my studies. I so love my music, you know.”
Auntie Elif opens her green eyes wide. In their beauty is an icy stare. “The Chinese will never accept us. I don’t know why my brother allowed you to go study with those infidels.” She dips a piece of the hard-crusted loaf in a spot of yogurt on the chipped ceramic plate. I brought this plate back with me from the Music Conservatory in Urumqi just weeks ago.
“Father said if we attended school with the Chinese, maybe they would let us exist.” Hearing myself say this, it seems so naïve.
“Oh, yes. I remember him saying ‘my daughter will try to get the Chinese to respect our culture, our ways.’ What horse dung.” She huffs like one of our horses would.
I am taken aback. Elif is rarely so critical of her brother.
“Your father is a tribal chief so people listen to him.” Elif pinches some more of my bread, dips it in the creamy yogurt and throws it into her mouth. “He won’t be back from his expedition until winter. I hope I can protect you until he returns, Ayşe.” She chews the bread quickly and nervously, as a small droplet of yogurt falls from the left corner of her mouth.
I miss so much about Urumqi, but I don’t dare say it. If I admit how I long to study again, to be with my friends and to feel the bustle of the city, maybe she will not continue to help me. But I do miss rushing to class. I dream of again running to rehearsals with sheet music under my arm. I miss the trips to have lunch or dinner at a city restaurant. I even miss being pushed by the crowds as I try to board a bus. “I miss my music and the studies.” That is all I dare say.
Elif crosses her right leg under her, pulling the long skirt away so she can sit on the carpet. “Urumqi is too much like a typical Chinese city now.”
“When I lived there, I soon found the need to fit in. I wanted to keep my head scarf, you know, but it brought the wrong type of attention.” I can see the college emblem slowly appearing on the plate as the yogurt is eaten.
“Such a good girl, who came home pregnant from an infidel,” Elif says.
I bite my lip hard. I want to swear at her, saying, “This is my baby. She will be beautiful. She will be a warrior,” but I don’t dare. “It was hard sometimes in the city. My roommate in the dormitory was a girl from Beijing. She was rich, spoiled and had waxy, white skin.”
Elif makes a gesture as if vomiting which makes me smile. She is many years my senior but she acts like a teenager.
“Exactly, and she detested non-Chinese like me. But I was quiet and humble. Even so, she decided she was going to make my life miserable.” At the end of the first semester, the pretty, popular girls had a party in the dorm. It was forbidden, but they didn’t have to follow rules. After all, their daddies were all Communist Party members. Who would stop them? There I was, in our dorm room with alcohol, drugs, and boys. I had an exam the next day but they didn’t care. The music shook the windows, and cigarette smoke choked me. I thought if I ignored them, they would leave me alone. But when they started kissing and touching each other, I finally told them I must sleep and they needed to take their party elsewhere.
In the morning, I smelled something raw. That is all I can say to describe it. It was like the blood odor when we sacrifice sheep during turban festival, but sweeter. As I walked to the sink to wash my face, the scent grew more rancid. I dried the water from my face and stood up straight. As I pulled the towel from my eyes, there it was − a pig’s head hanging in my doorway. My prayer beads had been used to secure the severed head to a meat hook that was plunged into the soft wooden doorframe. I was startled by the sight of such violence. My heart ached not for me but for the pig who was used this way. Its eyes wide open as if pleading for justice.
When I stormed into the dormitory manager’s office, I found it filled with the Chinese students, girls and boys. They were just hanging out, as they tended to do. My roommate was among them, as if waiting for me. It wasn’t only the pig’s head, I protested to the manager but the ridicule I heard on a daily basis.
Does your daddy fuck sheep?
All my rage, all my anger erupted in words I didn’t know I had in me.
Yes, I am a Uyghur, a Muslim and I am a Chinese citizen, equal to you. No, I’m better than the likes of you!
I felt like a weight was taken off my chest, despite the tremble in my voice and the shaking in my body.
End of Excerpt
EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing-Fiction
Institute of American Indian Arts
Graduate Diploma in Eduction
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technilogy
Chinese Language and Literature
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
Graduate Diploma in Education
University of Chicago Basic Copyediting Course